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Police Conduct in the Handling of Penn Case Raises Questions

July 13, 1986|GLENN F. BUNTING | Times Staff Writer

Shortly after one San Diego police officer was shot to death and another was seriously wounded, six patrolmen armed with shotguns set out to find the killer.

The officers, with no knowledge of the gunman's whereabouts, marched through a predominantly black neighborhood in Southeast San Diego. They had a hunch the suspect had fled to a small house where one of the "more prominent and violent local gang members" resided, according to a police report.

Police surrounded the bungalow on Quail Street, kicked in the front door and found no one inside, recalled neighbors who watched the break-in on March 31, 1985. Witnesses said the officers left the front door open and didn't leave a note or make any explanation.

About the same time, the 24-year-old black man who shot the officers, Sagon Penn--who did not belong to any gang--turned himself in at police headquarters.

Another group of officers, meanwhile, barged into the house of Carlton Smith, who had seen the confrontation between Penn and police before the shootings. Smith said the officers turned off his television set and separated his six children into one room and the four adults in another. Police ordered them not to talk to anyone until detectives arrived, which was three hours later, Smith said.

"I asked them, 'Was this legal? Can y'all just come in my house and do this?' " Smith testified during the Penn trial. "One of them said, 'A police officer has been killed. We can do what we want.' "

Penn was found innocent last month of murder in the shooting death of Police Agent Thomas Riggs and attempted murder in the shooting of Police Agent Donovan Jacobs. In the wake of the verdicts, police administrators are trying to patch up their damaged relations with the city's black community.

The jury concluded that Jacobs provoked Penn by beating him repeatedly and using racial slurs, although senior police officers maintain that the officer did nothing improper.

Beyond Jacobs' conduct, however, there were numerous instances on the night of the shootings in which officers either went beyond legal restraints on police conduct or were insensitive to Southeast San Diego residents. These included police emergency operators who disregarded pleas from black residents calling for help, patrol officers who stormed into houses and held black occupants against their will, and homicide detectives who demanded that black witnesses talk to them.

Even though some of these examples were brought out in court during Penn's trial, police officials say they have no knowledge of any illegal or unethical activity by officers March 31, 1985.

"If there was misconduct on the part of our employees, it has not been investigated because it has not been brought to our attention," Assistant Police Chief Bob Burgreen said. "We should have investigated it, said we're sorry and done what we had to do to make sure that it doesn't happen again. But we didn't even know about it."

Burgreen suggested that minorities in depressed areas are often unwilling to file complaints with the Police Department against individual officers.

Penn faces a second trial in August on several undecided charges. The jury was deadlocked, 11-1, on acquitting Penn of the attempted murder of civilian ride-along Sarah Pina-Ruiz. It also voted, 10-2, to acquit Penn of the voluntary manslaughter of Riggs and the attempted voluntary manslaughter of Jacobs.

Police say they are encouraged so far by community reaction to the verdicts.

"I think the community still supports the police," said Capt. David Johnson, commander of the department's Southeastern Division. "No matter what they're feeling, they are looking at this as a tragic incident. You can't criticize all police officers and you can't criticize the community. . . . We can't really go back and undo it."

But black leaders say that police should not forget the case, either.

"You don't put things like this behind you. You learn from them," said Nate Harris, an activist in the black community and a former San Diego police officer. "This is the first time in the San Diego community that anything like this has happened. It was a very sobering thing, a very hard lesson in life. But some officers out there needed to learn that lesson. . . .

"Tom Riggs was a martyr. If we put it behind us, he will have died for nothing."

Based on numerous interviews, police documents and courtroom testimony, the following is a chronology of how the Police Department responded on the night of the shootings:

Angela McKibben looked out onto her driveway and saw Jacobs on top of Penn, punching him in the face, and Riggs striking Penn with his baton. She knew the black man needed help, and decided to call police.

Her conversation with a police operator:

"San Diego Police Emergency, 17."

"Yes. I would like to report some police brutality right in front of my house!" McKibben said excitedly.

"What is the emergency?" the operator responded calmly. " . . . What is the emergency?"

McKibben handed the phone to her friend, Doria Jones.

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